August 24, 2018 / 1:17 PM / a month ago

Georgia blocks move to close voting sites in mostly black county

(Reuters) - A Georgia elections board on Friday blocked a bid to close most polling places in a largely black county after critics called it a thinly-veiled attempt to undercut Stacey Abrams, who could become the country’s first female, African-American governor.

Both Abrams, the Democratic nominee, and her rival Republican Brian Kemp, who is white and serves as Georgia’s secretary of state, had urged county officials to drop the plan.

The ruling was a win for Abrams’ campaign, which aims to turn out more rural black voters, some of whom would have had to travel miles to cast a ballot in Randolph County if the measure passed.

It was the latest skirmish in a long-running U.S. political fight over restrictions on voting. Some Democrats argue that restrictions on voting such as fewer polling places or requirements to show ID restrict the rights of minority voters. Some Republicans have pointed to ID rules and dropping infrequent voters from the rolls as necessary to prevent fraud.

“We are pleased African-Americans voters in Randolph County will be able to access polling stations in November,” Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said in a phone interview. “Too often they are faced with voter suppression tactics like this which are clearly motivated by racial animus.”

FILE PHOTO: Stacey Abrams, running for the Democratic primary for Georgia's 2018 governor's race, speaks at a Young Democrats of Cobb County meeting as she campaigns in Cobb County, Georgia, U.S. on November 16, 2017. REUTERS/Chris Aluka Berry/File Photo

The board of elections in Randolph County, about 125 miles (200 km) south of Atlanta, voted 2-0 to block the measure, a spokesman said in a phone interview. A crowd of voting-rights advocates packed the room for their morning vote, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.

Kemp said on Twitter that the board had done “the right thing.” Abrams did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The proposal would have closed seven of Randolph county’s nine polling sides because they were not wheelchair accessible, which board members said was a violation of federal disabilities law. It was submitted by an elections consultant who had donated money to Kemp’s campaign, the Journal-Constitution reported. County Attorney Tommy Coleman said officials fired him on Wednesday.

Reuters could not immediately confirm the reported donation.

Some 60 percent of the rural county’s 7,100 residents are black.

“In the United States, the right to vote is sacred,” the Randolph County Board of Elections said in a statement. “The interest and concern shown has been overwhelming, and it is an encouraging reminder that protecting the right to vote remains a fundamental American principle.”

FILE PHOTO: Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp speaks with visitors to the state capitol about the "SEC primary" involving a group of southern states voting next month in Atlanta, Georgia February 24, 2016. REUTERS/Letitia Stein/File Photo

Reporting by Bernie Woodall in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Tim Reid in Chicago, writing by Scott Malone; Editing by Steve Orlofsky and Tom Brown

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